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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

You Magazine (UK, 2002)

You Magazine (13 January 2002, UK)

Nelly Flies High
Sunday, January 13th, 2002

Her debut single “I’m Like A Bird” took the world by storm. Now Nelly Furtado has won Best Newcomer at the Top of the Pops Awards. Not bad for the “weird and introverted” daughter of a Portuguese chambermaid.Nelly Furtado may have a platinum album but she doesn’t seem much like a pop star to me. For a start, there is her headgear. To be frank, it is not exactly what you could call glamorous. Today, she is wearing a shocking-pink knitted tea cosy that is so huge compared to her tiny head and body that she resembles a walking talking human microphone. Then there is her choice of reading matter. “I’m halfway trough a book called “Pure Lust: Elemental Feminist Philosophy”, she says. “I just picked it up in Denver airport.” Is she enjoying it? “Oh yes It’s radical. But I’m a literary type. I always haven been. I’d like to write myself one day.”

Pulling off the tea cosy so that her jet-black hair comes tumbling down, she settles in her chair and pours herself a cup of camomile tea. Though Furtado is just as beautiful in the flesh as she is in pictures, there’s no disguising the shadows over her greeny-blue eyes. She looks as if she could sleep for a week. “Yeah I could do with a break,” she sighs. “These days, I’m never in the same place for more than 24 hours. The album [Whoa, Nelly!] was released in February and I’ve been on the road ever since, touring the US with David Gray, supporting Moby in New York, and U2 in Dublin.” Tonight she plays London, tomorrow Germany. No wonder her dreams all involve hot, sandy beaches.

She is not, however, about to make a bid for freedom and anonymity. She might possibly up her intake of chocolate (Nelly, who does not drink alcohol or caffeine, has a passion for Cadbury’s éclairs), but otherwise she intends to continue working like there is no tomorrow. She has been waiting for fame to arrive for all of her 22 years; it would be churlish to start complaining about it now that it’s finally here. “Besides, I’m already addicted to the mayhem of life on road”, she says. “I guess you have to be able to make the sacrifices involved. It’s quite some drive that can keep you apart from your family and loved ones. Luckily, I’m used to dealing with isolation. I’ve always been weird socially. I was an introverted child.

Though it is only a little over a year since Furtado first played on the airwaves (her first single, ILAB, went straight to the Top Five), her rags-to-riches-story is already the stuff of music industry legend. Furtado is Canadian, the youngest of three children born to blue-collar Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. (Nelly’s own Portuguese is so fluent that, during a recent visit to Lisbon, she conducted all her press conferences and interviews in the language.) Her father was a stonemason, her mother a chambermaid, and as a teenager, Nelly, who played the trombone and ukulele, would earn extra money at the Robin Hood motel, on the west coast of Canada. “I was a really good chambermaid,” she laughs “I was thorough. The only time I got distracted was when I was writing my songs on the back of the room-report slips.”

At 17, she left home and went to Toronto, where her sister Lisa found her a job as a customer services rep for an alarm company. In the evenings, however, Nelly pursued her first love – music. “When I was really small, I wanted to be a magazine editor or a fashion designer. Then someone gave me a Paula Abdul album and I started singing. Later, I was into Mariah Carey, and after that I got into British bands especially Oasis. I finally met Noel Gallagher when I sang at T in the Park in Scotland. He said that he’d read in a NME that I was a fan and that I once wrote a letter to his brother. I was a little bit embarrassed. But he was nice, he said: “It’s about time someone gave us a plug!”

In Toronto, she formed her first band, a trip-hop act called Nelstar, and at a local club she was spotted by to producers who convinced her to make a demo tape. Almost immediately, Nelly, who writes all her own songs and is influenced by hip-hop, samba and traditional Portuguese folk music, found herself at the centre of a bidding war, a competition that resulted in her signing to David Geffen and Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks label. Since then, she has variously been described as the new Madonna and the new Alanis Morisette (though, naturally, she is not really like either of them. “Fame came very quickly once the deal was signed, “she says. “In Canada, It literally happened overnight. For a while, things were almost too crazy to handle. I would get back home from tour and feel I couldn’t call anyone because no one would be able to relate what I was going through. You kinda loose perspective. You’re in a bubble the whole time; it’s hard to explain. But I’m used to it now. Things that would have been overwhelming five years ago start to seem totally normal”.
Like what exactly? “Well, when I was at the VH1 awards, Hillary Clinton was backstage and I talked to her and it didn’t feel weird at all. And when I played Elton John’s party after the Oscars, I just accepted all these stars were there, listening to me – even though I grew up fantasising about famous people. I used to be glued to every award ceremony that came on TV. In fact I’m still addicted to glossy magazines. I love checking out what everyone’s wearing.”

Nevertheless, she is very keen to point out that her upbringing means she is unlikely ever to turn into a horrid pop prima donna. “My parents never allowed us to feel that we were more special than anyone else. They brought us up to be very humble and grounded. I could never become some little princess – that would be unacceptable behaviour! People do trip up in this business; they get drunk on the money and the opportunities that come in their way, I don’t want that to happen to me.”

Though she is officially a resident of Los Angeles, she still has a bedroom at her parents’ home in the Victoria suburbs, with her radiohead poster on the wall. Her mother longs to redecorate, but Nelly insists everything stays the same for the time being. Money, she says, has not changed the way the family lives (“In this business, you make money from publishing royalties and won’t see any of that for a while.”) but she can afford to treat them once in a while.

“My parents are so unmaterialistic, you wouldn’t believe it,” she says. “They’re letting me pay for the whole family to fly out to Portugal in the summer, but when I gave them a VCR for a present, they were a little bit insulted. But I guess I’m the same way. I don’t need lots of flashy rings on my fingers. I was just looking at some stuff in the lobby here, actually I thought: that’s kinda nice. Then I thought: but you’d look like a total dweeb in that!”

She has learnt to cope with fame by developing a filter between her brain and her mouth. Her answers to certain questions, the prying kind, are virtually automatic. “People who don’t know me well get frustrated with me because I can seem so detached,” she explains. “I totally understand why some big stars hide away in their big mansions, but I think the best way of dealing with it is just to avoid certain situations. Now I know people are always going to want to take pictures of me, I’m not going to walk down the street with someone I’m dating. You have to think carefully about what you want people to know about you.”

So who is she dating? In the past there have been rumours that she is seeing Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit. “Actually I’m single,” she says with a shrug. “I think girls focus to much on this idea of meeting Prince Charming. It’s so negative especially when you’re really young. That’s when you should be discovering who you are so that when you do find love, you’re ready for it. The things is, when you’re famous, you meet all these incredible people all the time. You have two dates with someone and suddenly you’re in love with them. Marriage is just the next step, right? In the celebrity world, getting married just means you’re going steady!” She laughs loudly. “Obviously I date people. I would be an idiot to try to make you think otherwise. But I don’t have a steady boyfriend. I don’t need one and it’s empowering for me to say it. Fame definitely makes it hard to meet people, so in the business I recommend that people just try to stay friends. You’ve got to make sure you’ll benefit from a relationship rather than just be in one for the sake of it. A lot of people are in relationships out of fear of being alone, of seeming alone. Well, I’m not afraid of that because I’ve got a lot of people around me who love me.”

So meanwhile, Nelly will throw herself into her work. Looking small and frail in her denims and trainers, she downs her tea and explains that she must now go off to tonight’s venue to do a sound check. For the past three weeks, her mother has been on the road with her (the first time she has come along) but tomorrow she flies back to Canada; Nelly wants tonight to be really special. “You know, when you are an immigrant you develop an underdog mentality. You always feel like you have a chip on your shoulder. You’re a bit alienated. So you have to overcome an extra hurdle. But you get strength from that. You just keep on working, working, working. Because you believe you’ll get there in the end.”

Interview Rachel Cooke
Photographs Sean Cook: Click Here


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